I have now finished reading Rebecca Bynum’s book Allah is Dead: Why Islam is not a Religion. As I mentioned previously, this book has a lot of atheism-bashing in it. For the most part, though, it is not that her values are opposed to the values typical of atheists; it is that she is misinformed about what kinds of values atheists hold. The values she claims to hold and the actual values of atheists are not as far apart as she imagines. In the summary of her book, where she is laying down why she doesn’t consider Islam a religion, she states her values and asserts that material determinists, which is how she characterizes atheists, do not share the same values. Let’s take a closer look at what she says on these matters.
She regularly mentions the value of truth, goodness, and beauty. Putting words into the mouths of atheists, she writes:
According to this position [material determinism], matter and force are all that make up reality. What we experience as mind is simply a “secretion of the brain” and what we experience as value is nothing more than the evolutionary genetic encoding of cultural convention which has allowed some groups a greater chance of survival than others. According to this view, even our virtues of duty, honor and charity are simply disguised selfishness. We are genetically predetermined to have such illusions as the values represented in art, literature and music. They give us comfort, but the ultimate value of virtue itself, is in the selfish genetic survival value it confers — there is no other value intrinsic in truth or beauty or goodness, for these things do not exist in reality. (149-150)
In this last sentence, she is actually saying that atheists deny the reality of truth, beauty, and goodness. Further down, she tells us that materialists say, “there is no truth” (150). First of all, as an atheist, let me say that truth is real, and its existence is not material. Truth is correspondence between meaning and fact. When I assert a statement, and it matches with reality, it is true, and wherever there is a true statement, there is truth. To give a trivial example, 1+1=2 expresses a true statement. Furthermore, many people turn to atheism precisely because truth matters to them. Truth matters to me. I want to know what is true, and that is why I have examined Christianity and other religions to determine whether any of them are true. With respect to Christianity, I have come to the judgement that it is not true. If I didn’t care about truth, I could believe in Christianity. But since I do care about the truth and have looked into the facts, I cannot accept Christianity as true.
Second, goodness is real. My life is a good thing in itself. It is life that is the source of value. As a sentient living being, I experience my life as inherently good. This is not to say that every detail of my life is always aok with me. But it is to say that it is the inherent value of my life that gives value to what is good for me. It is to say that continuing my life and enriching my life are objectively good, not just imaginary social constructs that promote my survival. It is to say that even if I have no children and produce nothing of value to others, my life is inherently good. I do not have to believe in God to recognize the inherent goodness of my life. The goodness of my life does not proceed from or depend upon any deity. It is inherent in what I am, a sentient living being.
I may have to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, at least to some extent. For example, I have a preference for brunettes, and others may prefer redheads. I enjoy the sound of synthesizers, and others may care to listen to nothing but acoustic instruments. But there is beauty that depends on other things than sensual preferences. There is the beauty of a mathematical expression, the beauty of a set of rules for a game, the beauty of a person’s character. These are things that depend upon standards of value, not just on personal preferences. Although there is room for individual tastes in music, there are also large areas of agreement. For example, most people will agree that Adele has some musical talent and Rebecca Black is quite lacking in it. Composers such as Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart are universally renowned, because our standards of beauty are not that different from each other, and what we hear in them is not just the satisfaction of individual preference but the recognition of something great in their music. The experience of beauty may be largely subjective, but then so is the recognition of truth. We recognize truth with our minds, and we experience beauty with our minds. Not everyone recognize the same things to be true, but we still agree that what is true is so regardless of what people believe. If we disagree on something, only one of us, if even that, will know the actual truth about it. We can argue over what is true. But with regard to beauty, there is some room for disagreement without assuming that one of us is right and the other wrong. A woman I regard as beautiful might not be regarded as beautiful by someone else and vice versa. I may see beauty in someone without expecting others to see the same beauty. But I’m also prepared to say that the qualities that make something beautiful to someone are not arbitrary, are not merely the products of sexual selection in evolution. With regard to music, I have spent years expanding my musical tastes. I have recognized that sometimes I don’t yet have the capacity to recognize the beauty in something but may gain it in time. And there remain other things that I don’t expect I will ever appreciate, such as chaotic static, slovenly, disheveled, obese women, or the character of someone who trains children to become suicide bombers.
On a personal note, beauty is extremely important to me. I experience beauty daily, and I commonly seek it out and appreciate it, because I have an inherent desire for it. This desire is part of being human. It may play a role in sexual selection, but the need to experience beauty goes far beyond its function in propagating the species. My experience of beauty is real and concrete, and it in no way depends upon the existence of or belief in a deity. When I watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos as a boy, I saw beauty in outer space. This experience wasn’t due to believing that the universe displayed God’s handiwork. It was just a natural reaction to what is out there. So I believe in beauty and cherish it very much.
So I agree with Bynum that truth, goodness, and beauty are all of tremendous value. The issue between us here is not so much on what we value but on what she thinks atheists value vs. what we really do.
She has herself complained that the new atheists are grouping Christianity with Islam and her brand of Christianity with creationism and Biblical literalism. I’ll admit that there is more to be said for her brand of Christianity than for the Christianity of the Inquisitors, of Martin Luther, of John Calvin, of the Puritans, of Fred Phelps and many others. The values she cares about are more in line with values expressed by Robert Green Ingersoll than they are with values expressed by many past Christians. For example, she values individuality. I just read Ingersoll’s lecture Individuality, in which he points out that Christianity has had a long history of repressing individuality. I’m glad that Bynum believes in the importance of individuality and does not share the opinions of earlier Christians on the subject. I’m glad that her brand of Christianity is more evolved than earlier and more brutal versions of Christianity. But I’ll also point out that she is making the same mistake that she is accusing atheists of. She is assuming that she knows what atheists are all about, and she is grouping them all together as strict materialists who don’t believe that truth, goodness, or beauty have any reality. And that opinion just isn’t based on reality.